Here the UK we have an “e-petition” website, where you can get get a bunch of like-minded people to sign up to your latest crazy idea and if you can find another 99,999 crazies then the Government has said it might consider debating your proposal. There was a lot of fuss yesterday, on twitter and in the news, about a petition to bring back capital punishment. Less fuss was made of the fact that there were twice as many petitioners for the contra motion.
A meme I saw repeated on twitter was that those who were campaigning for the return of the death penalty were those who also oppose abortion, as if this was both illogical and morally repugnant. (There is in fact an argument to be made that the innocent should be given a chance, while those who are clearly guilty have blown it—but that’s besides the point here.)
It’s equally logical to assert that those who are against capital punishment are also those who are in favour of killing unborn children—phrased like that, equally illogical and morally suspect.
The problem here is that, especially on twitter and in blogs and other forms of social media, subtleties and caveats and nuance are lost as we seek to beat the other side into submission—or at least to make them look foolish. There are, I think, few questions that resolve neatly into yes/no camps; and saying ‘yes’ to one never necessarily means an automatic ‘no’ to another. Look: the question “Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Answer yes or no” does not admit to an answer from a reasonable person. Equally, “Are you against abortion/Do you support the death penalty” in all cases is not a simple yes or no matter.
We could actually get somewhere if we stopped painting ‘the opposition’ in such simple terms. It would be even better if we realized how much our perceptions of someone who disagrees with us on one matter are shaped by either a few media-hogging loons, or the media itself, or both. But it’s far easier, far more satisfying, and far more effective in bolstering your own particular prejudices and gaining support, to demonize those you love to hate, and ascribe to them logically improbable positions to shore up your own prejudices and stop you engaging with the issue to hand. You’re white; I’m black: we must fight until one of us is dead.